Underpromise and overdeliver to your future self

27 Aug 2021 Gregory J. Stein

Managing expectations is an important skill. As a professor and a researcher, I need to ensure that both the funding agencies (to whom I report) and my students (who report to me) have a pretty good idea of what they can expect with regards to my time and research progress. That one should tend towards underpromising and overdelivering is a common adage: conventional wisdom suggesting that it is favorable to communicate what will likely succeed and to exceed that target, with bonus objectives communicated as more risky.

Sometimes this adage is taken to mean that potential “stretch goals” should be hidden until they pan out. I think hiding information is typically unwise, and try to have an open and honest channel of communication as possible.

With a new semester upon us, I am laying out a plan for what I think I can accomplish and setting expectations with myself about what I think make for reasonable targets and, to a lesser extent, bonus goals. I, like many of you, have a tendency to give myself plenty of lofty goals with little room for exceeding my expectations, often leading to some level of disappointment or excuse-making when the term comes to a close. In my experience, most of us are better at setting the expectations for others than we are for ourselves.

Recently, I’ve started to think of expectation management as a part of self-care, and I try to think of myself as an other, to whom I will eventually be accountable. As such, I try to underpromise and overdeliver to my future self by setting reasonable, conservative goals and remembering to congratulate myself whenever I exceed those targets by meeting my stretch goals. This guidance was my foremost piece of wisdom communicated during a recent panel discussion about surviving as first-year faculty and was invaluable during quarantine.